New Artists, Old Songs: The Berklee Bluegrass Edition
(with Grey Season, Honeysuckle, The Lonely Heartstring Band & more!)
We’ve shouted from the rooftops about the Berklee College of Music throughout our 8 years here at Cover Lay Down: through features and featurettes on the careers of young and emerging students and grads like Laura Cortese, Sierra Hull, Chasing Blue, Hannah Read, Emily Elbert, and Emma Beaton; through exploration of the coverage and songbooks of popular Berklee alumni Gillian Welch, Susan Tedeschi, Patty Larkin, Aimee Mann, Natalie Maines, Bruce Cockburn, and John Mayer; through the school’s annual appearances at the Grey Fox and Joe Val Bluegrass Festivals, where we’ve been privileged to catch other artists, such as guitarist Courtney Hartman of Della Mae and Stash Wyslouch of The Deadly Gentlemen, in other incarnations and combinations as they formed their own style.
We’ve even touched on Berklee twice in November, via features on recent graduates Matt Nakoa and Molly Tuttle: Nakoa, who will play our Unity House Concert series on November 21, honed his singer-songwriter, guitar, and keyboard skills there; the video we shared of Berklee grad Molly Tuttle’s quartet The Goodbye Girls was recorded at BIRN, the college’s internet radio station.
But sometimes a deeper dig reveals still more gems. Today’s three featured-first newcomers, Grey Season, Honeysuckle, and The Lonely Heartstring Band – all discovered while sifting through student performances on the Boston school’s incredible YouTube archives – show further clean and clear evidence of success for the college’s continued good work at the bleeding-edge intersection of academia and the grassier side of the folkways via the American Roots Music program. They’re joined by Mile Twelve, a band of current students on their way up the bluegrass ladder, and followed by two bonus featurettes, both a bit beyond bluegrass but equally strong, thanks to a few peripheral sources close to the college. Kudos, as always, to Berklee for a program that is both exceptionally well run, and worth following closely.
Don’t be lulled into complacency by the a capella verse that begins this amazing cover of Mama, You Been On My Mind; the song is about to explode into punkgrass, with a tinge of janglepop and more than a hint of country rock, thanks to 5-piece folk rock band Grey Season, a quartet on speed who recorded their debut full-length Time Will Tell You Well last year at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, NY, opened for Alabama Shakes, The Avett Brothers, and Hozier this September at the Boston Calling festival, and will send you a download link to Undercover, a full album of hard-edged covers of songs from Merle Travis, Father John Misty, The Doors, The Rolling Stones and more, for an email sign-up.
And wow, do we recommend both albums, especially for fans of that fertile soil where grungy Americana, roots music, grassy country, and folk rock meet. Their resurrection of Rod Stewart’s Maggie May has shades of The Band, the Beach Boys and Springsteen; their potent versions of old standards Dark as a Dungeon and Mary and the Soldier are lighthearted and rich with harmony, and their take on Up On Cripple Creek is a modern update for the electro-acoustic set which cranks the playful, funky energy of the original up to eleven. Meanwhile the band’s driving banjo-and-bass take on Richard Thompson classic 1952 Vincent Black Lightning is a fine punk pop masterpiece, with jangling strings, wailing electric guitar, and a full drum kit that would make them as perfect an opening act for The Dropkick Murphys as for Parsonsfield.
- Grey Season: Maggie May (orig. Rod Stewart)
- Grey Season: Faded From The Winter (orig. Iron & Wine)
- Grey Season: Mary and the Soldier (trad./arr. Paul Brady)
(from Undercover, 2015)
Beatles-inspired quintet The Lonely Heartstring Band claims roots firmly in old-school full-band Appalachian and bluegrass music, and it shows in everything from their masterful harmonies to their tight, fluid instrumentation, complete with banjo and fiddle solos worth every lick.
The seven tracks on their mostly-Beatles covers EP (the inevitable product of their formative commission as an all-Beatles wedding band) far transcend the typical, but as those who have already caught them on the mainstage at Grey Fox or the Freight and Salvage know well, don’t dismiss them as just another bluegrass popcovers studio collaborative. As seen below in recent takes on Rambling, Gambling Willie and Paul Simon’s Graceland, together, their recent YouTube videos, their live shows, their Beatles EP, and an impending Kickstarter-driven album comprise a collection of performances so exquisitely clean and smooth, they serve as a virtual how-to for the modern melodic end of the grassy folk tradition, culminating in a growing body of work Bill Monroe himself would be proud to promote.
Current nominees for both Best Folk and Best Americana artists for this year’s Boston Music Awards alongside the aforementioned Grey Season, Honeysuckle takes on the bluegrass-Americana folk trio sound at its best, with wonderful raspy, slippery Appalachian-tinged vocals from singer Holly McGarry that layer exquisitely over loose banjo, mandolin, guitar, and harmonies, culminating in a truly American sound that reportedly thrilled the crowd along the water’s edge at Newport Folk Festival this summer.
Case in point: it’s hard to cover Gillian Welch well, but with not one but two great Welch covers among its original gems, their live recording from last November’s gig at the Rockwood Music Hall easily beats the spread. No covers on their equally strong studio EP Arrows, which was released last April, but we’ll be keeping an ear out for a full-length promised for Spring 2016.
We had to go beyond the Berklee archives to find Mile Twelve, but they were already on our radar, thanks to featured appearances at both last week’s New England Regional Folk Alliance conference and this year’s Freshgrass Festival, a fave festival held on the grounds of avant-garde art museum MassMOCA in the upper Western corner of our home state of Massachusetts, which brought raves from the crowd.
The band features current Berklee students playing the kind of raw, formative bluegrass that often typifies student work from the program: chock full of old standards and fresh, original compositions, technically strong but still exploratory, a little loose in all the right ways, but played with heart and joy. Tony Trischka is spot on when he notes that “Mile Twelve is carrying the bluegrass tradition forward with creativity and integrity”; after recent gigs at Ossipee Valley and Grey Fox, and a self-titled EP released just this summer containing five originals and a great cover of Carter Stanley’s Our Last Goodbye, the sky, as they say, seems to be the limit. Where they’ll go from here, no one knows – just a year ago, most of these kids were performing in another band, as seen below – but for now, both Mile Twelve and its individual players are well worth watching.
They’re barely bluegrass, but this pair of Joni Mitchell covers, discovered in an offshoot video archive maintained by college radio station BIRN, were certainly intriguing enough to tack on as a coda. The older of the two, an oddly moody, eminently creative cover of You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio, features Molly Tuttle herself on Guitar and lead vocals; the other, posted just a few weeks ago, features fiddler and current Berklee student Adam Iredale-Gray of newly-discovered Canadian folk band Fish & Bird, which we hope to feature soon on its own. And the intrigue? Though there appears to be no overlap in personnel between the two, both are nominally performed by the Berklee Joni Mitchell Ensemble, from which we infer that the moniker refers to a project, not a band.
Finally: Bonus points for following the threads all the way to this past Spring’s YouTube Hack project, which challenged Berklee students to learn, record, produce and distribute a finished video product in just 36 hours from start to finish – and revealed covers of Whitney Houston and Canadian electro-pop artist Lights among the ruins when the project was complete. We’ll just leave these two surprisingly good (but decidedly not bluegrass) videos here, shall we?
Looking for more evidence of Berklee College prowess, and willing to wander beyond the blue? Spend an afternoon digging through Berklee’s growing YouTube archives, with separate playlists of student originals, covers and arrangements, and the Visiting Artists at Berklee archives, a fascinating collection of over 100 videos with Jazz, Bluegrass, Big Band, Latin, Pop, World and new classical arrangements from the likes of Del McCoury, Victor Wooten, and Alejandro Sanz alongside some truly inspirational speeches and interviews with and from Jimmy Page, Annie Lennox, and more.